How did wearing or not wearing a simple piece of fabric become a politically charged statement? We’ve all recently witnessed how shifting messages and a leadership vacuum can make even the most respected experts seem like they’re howling into the wind.
Let’s review how we got here—and learn how to ensure your own brand remains a trusted leader in any crisis.
Masks turned pawns
Our current crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic began roughly one year ago. Talk of it bubbled under the surface of the national consciousness for several weeks before roaring to life in early March 2020. From the very beginning, a variety of experts communicated an ever-changing and never-synced series of health and safety recommendations to Americans.
In the early days, the CDC recommended that only sick people and frontline healthcare workers wear masks when in public or near people sick with or known to be exposed to the coronavirus. They didn’t provide reasons at first, though it soon became clear that worries about a mask shortage were a main driver behind this recommendation.
By mid-spring, the CDC shifted its stance to recommending all Americans wear cloth masks, as we learned the airborne nature of the virus’ spread. Meanwhile medical experts and national leaders delayed advice, and a leadership vacuum opened. A parade of science and medical experts, from Dr. Anthony Fauci to Dr. Scott Atlas, were routinely given a sanctioned government platform, then shuffled away. The public absorbed messages ranging from a president saying he didn’t want to “give press the pleasure” of seeing him wearing a mask; to a governor attending a large, unmasked indoor dinner; to a vice president not wearing a mask while visiting a hospital in the midst of the pandemic. Moves like this, in visible opposition to medical advice, further undermined what should have been clear guidance around a basic public health measure.
A lack of centralized, coordinated messages about the pandemic and the virus itself compounded confusion and mistrust amongst members of the public, who didn’t know which source of divergent information to trust.
Your brand, a trusted leader
What happened? A lack of trust, both before and during the current pandemic crisis, created a chaotic environment. For the past several years, only around 40 percent of Americans expressed trust in the government.
With no single, established source of authority, and a lack of clear information, COVID-19 public health messaging and the ever-changing guidance were muddled at best, and completely unspoken at worst. This increased the lack of trust and confusion during a time when clear and accurate public health communications were critical.
During a time of crisis, how can your brand lead with authority and trust, even when information keeps changing?
First and foremost, establish a foundation of trust during “normal,” non-crisis times. To build trust in your brand:
- Tell the truth. Be transparent and direct with your stakeholders, in both good and tough times. Promote your good work, because awareness can lead to understanding. If you’re on people’s radars during good times, they’ll have some background (and the beginnings of trust) if and when you share tough news. So don’t hide the bad, but avoid negative news being the first time the public hears from you.
It’s also worth noting that anecdotes aren’t data. “Alternative facts” aren’t facts. If your stakeholders are going to trust you, they need to know you base your brand’s decisions on a foundation of truth.
- Trust your audience. Give people credit: they can take the hard news. But, equip them with the knowledge they need to make the right decision for themselves. The most elite credentials and titles don’t matter if you’re not treating your stakeholders as intelligent people who will notice when you say one thing and do another.
Trust is a two-way street. Talking down to people shows you don’t trust them. Instead, get caught doing the right thing. Show your work and the reasons behind your decisions, so if information changes, your stakeholders can see and understand the reasons behind your organization’s decisions.
- Align all actions with your brand’s core values. Doing this leads to strategic thinking and decisions that support, not detract from, positive goals (for instance, respect and collaboration).
Grounding your decisions in core values provides a foundation to consider tougher questions, as the Chairman of PwC U.S. recently explained: “I believe we are in an age where organizations are going to be challenged on every dimension of trust. Are you as diverse as you should be? Do you pay your fair share of taxes? Do you protect and use customer data the right way? Are you doing your fair share around ESG [environmental, social, corporate governance]? Are you using customer data fairly and securely? The list goes on.”
When you employ these guidelines to build trust in the good times, your brand won’t need to start at zero in the hard times. You’ll be able to ensure your brand is speaking with one voice—the voice that your stakeholders have already learned to trust.